Wroclaw Panthers secure final playoff spot as ELF wraps up inaugural regular season

Twelve weeks and 40 games later and the inaugural regular season of the European League of Football is finally complete.

What started as a brave new experiment has matured, stumbled, and grown as it heads into the playoffs and all eight teams have offered their respective fanbases something different. There have been plenty of mistakes and faux-pas, but the excitement around the league is real as rumors of a minimum four-team expansion next year continue to take shape.

The final week of the regular season featured several games just for show, but one matchup did finally lock in the league’s playoff teams. The Frankfurt Galaxy, Hamburg Sea Devils, Cologne Centurions, and Wroclaw Panthers will all get a shot to be named the league’s first champion, but first, Week 12 had to be taken care of. Here are my thoughts on the games.

Game 1 – Wroclaw Panthers 21 – Leipzig Kings 13

Wroclaw Panthers WR Mazan Jakub #23 Photo: Łukasz Skwiot

There were three games in the ELF on Sunday, but only one really mattered. The league’s final playoff spot was on the line in the battle between the former Polish powerhouse Wroclaw Panthers and the upstart Leipzig Kings and ultimately the more experienced team prevailed.

Fans and ELF promoters both might have hoped that what was easily the league’s game of the year going in resulted in more offensive fireworks. After all, it featured two passing attacks with a reputation for exciting plays and big-time production. Instead, it was solid defense that carried the day for both sides and the result was somewhat underwhelming until a last second Daniel Docal forced fumble, and Timothy Knuettel touchdown from Leipzig provided a burst of excitement that ended with a failed onside kick.

The Panthers shut down the Kings attack for long stretches of the ball game and it was an interception by former GFL All-Star Goran Zec which set up a one-yard Kavontae Turpin touchdown to take the lead early in the first quarter. While Jaleel Awini did manage to bust a few runs, the Panthers continued to have success against the Kings‘ usually potent receivers and Karlis Braun made some big plays up front. When quarterback Michael Birdsong did get something going, penalties along the offensive line sucked out any momentum.

Leipzig didn’t play poorly on defense, but a tired unit failed to stop running back Phileas Pasqualini on some key drives. Offensively they simply weren’t good enough to compensate and a late forced fumble wasn’t enough to overcome it.

At the end of the day, the result of this game was what it likely should have been. Wroclaw has looked like a legitimate championship contender for stretches this season and should prove a tough test for Hamburg in the semi-finals.

While it will be little consolation after a loss, the fact that Leipzig came so close to the playoffs has to viewed as a massive moral victory in and of itself. The Kings were a barely launched club when the season began, having only received helmets two days before their opener. In ten weeks, head coach Fred Armstrong turned a group that battled injuries and relied heavily on depth from lower-level German teams into a playoff contender. It will be fascinating to see what he might be capable of with a full off-season.

Game 2 – Berlin Thunder 38 – Stuttgart Surge 0

Berlin’s thumping of Stuttgart was as meaningless a football game as could possibly be conceived, a battle between bottom dwellers that wasn’t even competitive. Beyond some brilliant performances from Thunder imports Joc Crawford and Kolin Hill, there was little to write about here as the Surge stumbled to the finish line with a pair of backup quarterbacks.

I’ve written plenty about the inaugural struggles of the Thunder, which are primarily to the decision to invest in an inconsistent player at quarterback that never managed to bring out the best in the talent around him. The problems in Stuttgart ran far deeper. Born in part from a solid GFL organization in the Stuttgart Scorpions, they should have been much better than they were. Instead, they finish as the ELF’s single worst team.

What it came down to in the end was management. While other teams loaded up on high-end talents, the Surge attempted to lean on their local German depth. That was a better foundation for an organization than many teams were afforded, but they failed to supplement it.

Few star Europeans were brought into the fold and their import choices were ultimately suspect. Some of that was due to unforeseen circumstances, but while each of their Americans is talented they didn’t maximize position value. Beyond quarterback, tight end and linebacker aren’t premier spots in the modern style of game played in the ELF. They needed receivers, edge rushers, or defensive backs to change the game.

Berlin did spend on blue chip players and it didn’t work out, but their willingness to do so puts them on better footing going forward. At this stage, Stuttgart needs a completely changed philosophy to be competitive next year.

Game 3 – Frankfurt Galaxy 45 – Cologne Centurions 7

Frankfurt Galaxy players celebrating Nico Schön TD Photo: Marlin Prauss

Try not to read into this too much. With these two teams set to play in the playoffs next week, two squads essentially comprised of backups took to the field for the regular-season finale. What you can glean from the result however is that the Frankfurt Galaxy are ridiculously deep.

One need to look no further than backup quarterback Moritz Johannknecht to see that exemplified. With import Jakeb Sullivan taking the night off, the young German put himself in contention for the weekly MVP award with four passing touchdowns, a rushing score, and no turnovers. It was an impressive ELF debut as a starter and one that might even put him in the conversation for a starting job somewhere next season.

Throw in a few big plays from Justin Rodney and some excellent play from a crew of reserve receivers and you saw just how unbelievably talented Frankfurt truly is all the way down their roster. That isn’t headline grabbing, but it is a big reason why they sit atop the ELF with a 9-1 record and haven’t lost since their season opener. Cologne will give them a better test next week with stars like Madre London back in the lineup, but right now it is hard to see anyone topping the Galaxy.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.